Md. judicial appointee’s gun rights’ advocacy draws attention

Bryan P. Sears//July 15, 2016

Md. judicial appointee’s gun rights’ advocacy draws attention

By Bryan P. Sears

//July 15, 2016

Jonathan Newell.
Caroline County State’s Attorney Jonathan Newell.

A recent appointee to the Caroline Circuit Court is drawing attention for his vocal advocacy on gun-related issues.

Advocates who support stricter gun regulations say the comments made by current Caroline County State’s Attorney Jonathan Newell raise eyebrows. A spokesman for the Gov. Larry Hogan was dismissive of the exchanges on social media and a number of hunting-related websites, saying they were done on Newell’s private time and should not factor into his appointment to the bench.

“Maryland state government as a rule needs to be very careful about judging a person’s personal politics and whether they can do their job,” said Douglass Mayer, a Hogan spokesman.

Mayer confirmed that the governor’s appointments secretary had seen posts attributed to Newell on various social media and websites, some under screen names “Choptank” and “Choptankcrabber” and some signed by the state’s attorney or using his official Caroline County government address. He also said that Hogan was aware of the posts but had not read them.

In those posts, Newell discusses his candidacy for Caroline County Circuit Court against Judge Karen A. Murphy Jensen before Murphy Jensen retired; his strong advocacy for Second Amendment rights and membership in the National Rifle Association; and his belief that the ACLU should have its tax-exempt status revoked:

  • “March 9 is the ‘Senate Gun Day’ in the ‘Judicial Proceedings Committee’ and March 15 is the ‘House Gun Day’ in the ‘Judiciary Committee.’…. I think testifying is important and I plan to be there both days. But even more important than me, (a pro-2A, pro-law enforcement Republican from the Eastern Shore) would be if many of you guys living on the western shore contacted your representatives that are on these committees, and tell them you are watching closely and will spend the next three years telling all your friends to vote them out of office if they support additional intrusions on the Second Amendment.”

  • “I have been the elected State’s Attorney for Caroline County since 2003. Some prosecutors are anti-2nd Amendment, and some of us are Pro-2A. From my position as the chief prosecutor for Caroline County for the past 13 years, I have attended MSI [Maryland Shall Issue] rallies, and I may be the only elected State’s Attorney that waited in lines for hours to testify against SB281 in 2013 in addition to lobbying against it behind the scenes. And I am as frustrated as everyone else that felt their input was ignored 3 years ago, but I haven’t given up yet…. I am a hunter, recreational shooter and long time NRA member trying to preserve those tradition for my kids.”

  • “I am in a somewhat unique position – I have good reason to follow the GA for work related bills and on that side I am tapped into a network….Our prosecutors network helps us stay on top of bill hearings, and more importantly the constant amendments and back room deals. You think horse people are bad? The ACLU and the Public Defender’s Office have several attorneys working fulltime in Annapolis during session. Frankly I think the ACLU ought to have their tax exempt status reviewed since there is a prohibition on how much of your budget can be spent on lobbying, and I know there is nothing in the PD statute about lobbying the legislature.”

Newell also used his official state’s attorney email address in one post to solicit testimony from others on a proposed Sunday hunting bill that he testified in favor of in March.

Newell did not respond to a request for an interview.

This is not the first time one of Hogan’s appointments has drawn attention because of social media activity.

In April, the Senate rejected the appointment of Richard Jurgena to the Handgun Permit Review Board because of statements he made on social media regarding his belief that the state conceal-carry laws are unconstitutional. Maryland law requires a “good and substantial reason” to be issued a permit.

Jurgena’s nomination was successfully opposed by Marylander’s to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization that advocated for the passage of the 2013 Maryland Firearms Safety Act.

Newell, too, has questioned the legality of that law, saying in a 2012 posting  that the “Legislative Branch (General Assembly) Executive Branch (Governor’s Office and State Police Administration) and the Judicial Branch are all institutionalized to believe that ‘shall issue’ is a bad idea.” He later added that “it will take a major change in all three branches of government and many more years before Maryland resembles Virginia.”

But while Jurgena required Senate confirmation, Newell does not. Appointments made to the District Court, Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals all must be confirmed by the Senate. Circuit Court appointments are free from Senate advice-and-consent requirements, but appointees do have to stand for election in the first election after they are seated. For Newell, that would be 2018.

Elizabeth Banach, executive director of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, said Newell’s comments online concern her not because of the effect he can have on the Firearm Safety Act but because it represents a pattern in appointments for Hogan.

“My concern lies in (Hogan’s) attempts through various appointments to undermine the Firearm Safety Act,” Banach said. “It shows a trend. The governor is doing exactly what the gun lobby folks said he was going to do — appoint pro-gun people to various positions in state government.”

It is not uncommon for judges to have or express strong political opinions in their lives before they were appointed to the bench, said Daniel Clements, a retired Baltimore attorney, noting that former Gov. Parris Glendening delayed his appointment of Judge George Lippman to the Baltimore City Circuit Court because of Lippman’s strong and public anti-death penalty stance.

“We just know more about their political views now because of social media,” said Clements, who did not directly address Newell’s appointment or the online comments. “Before, it might have been quiet or something closely held. Now they put all this stuff on social media.”

Mayer said Hogan “was generally aware of (Newell) being very outspoken in his private life.”

“The only thing that matters is the person’s professional experience and their ability to administer the law in a non-biased, impartial fashion,” Mayer said, adding that the governor has been bi-partisan in picking judges, specifically noting the appointments of Court of Appeals Judges Michele D. Hotten and Joseph M. Getty.

“The governor wants to appoint the most-qualified candidates,” Mayer said. “That’s what you get when you don’t look at a person’s personal politics. As soon as you start doing that, where does it end?”


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